After electrifying the recording world, television and live audiences of the 1950s with his bump-and-grind brand of rock-and-roll, Elvis Presley made his movie debut in the 20th Century Fox Western Love Me Tender (1956). He seemed at least partly intent upon becoming a serious actor in some of his early roles: a semi-autobiographical part in Paramount’s Loving You (1957); an ex-con rocker in MGM’s Jailhouse Rock (1957); and, back at Paramount, a young delinquent (a part once mentioned for James Dean) in King Creole (1958). Once he returned from military service, however, Presley seemed content to turn out lightweight musical comedies in which he essentially played himself and appeared to be having fun.
Born in Tupelo, Miss., in 1935, Presley moved to Memphis, Tenn., with his family at age 13. After recording a number of singles, he signed with RCA in 1955 and became an instant sensation. By the time of his premature death from a heart attack in 1977, “The King” had sold millions of singles and albums. In all, he made 33 movies that grossed a total of more than $150 million.
Among the films released through United Artists and MGM were Follow That Dream (1962), which has Elvis as the most responsible member of a rural family of itinerants who claim “squatter’s rights” on land owned by gamblers; Kid Galahad (1962), another attempt at drama with Elvis playing a neophyte boxer who tangles with gangsters and sings seven songs including his hit “I Got Lucky.”
In MGM’s It Happened at the World’s Fair (1963), Elvis plays a small-plane pilot who helps an abandoned child at the fair and sings 10 songs — most memorably, “One Broken Heart for Sale.” Kissin’ Cousins (1964) casts Presley both as a brunette Air Force lieutenant and his blond cousin, who’s part of a hillbilly clan that owns property needed by the government for a missile base. Presley’s best MGM movie was Viva Las Vegas (1964), directed by Golden-Age musical master George Sidney (Show Boat, 1951, Bye Bye Birdie, 1963) and featuring for once a costar who could more than hold her own with Elvis — the beautiful and dynamic Ann-Margret. He’s a racecar driver; she’s a swimming instructor – but they both have enough talent to have their own nightclub acts. The movie’s 12 songs include Presley’s lively take on Ray Charles’ “What’d I Say?”
Also at MGM, Presley made Girl Happy (1965), playing a rocker hired by a gangster to protect his pretty daughter, Shelley Fabares. In Harum Scarum (1965), Elvis plays a singer kidnapped and taken to the Middle East, where the sets include some once used for Kismet (1944) and the silent The Ten Commandments (1923). Presley’s other MGM roles include a rock star/racecar driver in Spinout (1966); a Mississippi gambler in Frankie and Johnny (1966); a rock star touring England (an ambition Presley himself never realized) in Double Trouble (1967); a photographer who works for both a “skin” magazine and a conservative newspaper in Live a Little, Love a Little (1968); and a mixed-blood Native American in Stay Away, Joe (1968).
Presley’s last film as an actor was Universal’s Change of Habit (1969), co-starring Mary Tyler Moore as a nun tempted by his charisma. In 1968, freed from his movie commitments, he made a triumphant return to live shows with an NBC television special and spent the rest of his career performing on recordings and the concert stage. Elvis on Tour (1972), a documentary released by MGM, shows Presley backstage as well as performing a long list of hits including “Polk Salad Annie,” “Johnny B. Goode” and “An American Trilogy.” The world mourned Presley’s death in 1977 (he was 42), his premature end apparently hastened by increasing weight and dependence upon drugs. He was divorced from Priscilla Presley, with whom he had one child, singer Lisa Marie Presley.
by Roger Fristoe